Ireland's Secret

CARSON DALY

Alice Taylor is one of Ireland's best-kept secrets. Although the fifty-eight-year-old housewife from County Cork is well known in her own country as the author of To School Through the Fields, the best-selling book in Ireland's history, most Americans have never heard of her or of her runaway bestseller.

A nostalgic account of growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and ‘50s, To School Through the Fields presents a series of heart-warming, often amusing vignettes depicting farm and village life in a far more innocent age. In many respects, it is the Irish equivalent of The Little House on the Prairie. Taylor’s subject, however, is not the nineteenth-century pioneers who settled the American Midwest, but the family, friends, and neighbors whom she knew as a child growing up on a farm outside the town of Newmarket in County Cork.

Modeled on real people, Taylor’s characters are Irish; they’re Catholic; and they’re funny. Their Catholicism, which is central to their identity, conditions who they are as well as what they think, say, and do. In a refreshing contrast to many modern accounts of growing up Catholic, she portrays the Church, its clergy, and her fellow Catholics with affection and humor. Unlike those writers who depict the religion of their youth as an incubator of neuroses and inhibitions, she paints the faith of her childhood as a deeply humanizing force — often illuminating, encouraging, and refining those it touched.

The world Taylor depicts — full of the beauties of nature, close-knit families, kindly neighbors, old-fashioned fun, and firm faith — has certainly resonated with her compatriots, who seem to consider To School Through the Fields a national treasure — a kind of collective memory book that captures their own, or their parents’ and grandparents’, upbringing. In fact, after Taylor’s first book appeared, the whole country was soon clamoring for more. To meet the demand, she produced, in quick succession, three sequels that chronicle the changes in her own life and in that of rural Ireland from the 1940s to the 1980s. Entitled Quench the Lamp (1990), The Village (1992), and Country Days (1993), they also have enjoyed record-breaking popularity.

Quench the Lamp is, as Taylor says herself, the story of “a time when rural Ireland quenched the oil lamp, removed the po (chamber pot) from under the bed and threw the black pots and kettles under the hedge.” As she recalls, “rural electrification flooded our homes with light, . . . . [M]odern plumbing replaced the bucket of spring water from the well,” electric ranges superseded the open hearth, and the “clip-clop of horses’ hooves gave way to the roar of engines.”

The Village describes Alice’s life as a young adult in the charming town of Innishannon — nestled on the banks of the Bandon River, fifteen miles from the city of Cork. After a short stint as a rural “telephonist,” she moved there in 1961, when, at age twenty-three, she married Gabriel Murphy, whose family had run the oldest shop in The Village for five generations. For the author, the 1960s and ‘70s were years of intense activity. She bore and raised four sons and a daughter, nursed several elderly relatives through their final confinements, and ran her own home. In addition, she helped operate the family store, tend the post office, and man the town’s round-the-clock switchboard. Undaunted by what most people would have considered a frenetic schedule, she and her husband, Gabriel, also opened a bed-and-breakfast, providing food and lodging for an amazing array of highly idiosyncratic guests. No wonder her favorite escape was the attic, where she could get a little peace and the chance to write — a hobby she had enjoyed since childhood.

Country Days, which follows Taylor’s career almost up to the present, includes reflections on everything from making a pilgrimage to Lough Derg — an Irish island where penitents have gone to pray since the Middle Ages — to visiting the beach at Ballybunion. The author also includes a moving meditation on what the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock means to the various pilgrims who come there and a humorous account of attending a writers’ conference that welcomed attendees of “high brow, low brow, or no brow.” Far from sating the public’s interest in Taylor’s work, these three sequels have merely intensified its appetite for more. To meet the demand, she published The Night Before Christmas in 1994, which recreates the magic of the rural Christmases she experienced as a child.

International Acclaim

Considered a phenomenon in Ireland, Taylor also has gained a following abroad — where her five books have sold more than one million copies. In the United States, all her work is available through Saint Martin’s Press, and To School Through the Fields, which has already been translated into German and Japanese, will soon be available in French and Polish as well. Surprisingly, despite the vast geographical distance and the difference in nationality, religion, and culture that separate Europe and Asia, Taylor’s first book has enjoyed great popularity in Japan. Her Japanese translator, Toyoko Takahashi, recently told The Cork Examiner that she thinks the secret of Taylor’s success in Japan lies in the beauty of the life she depicts: “an idyllic way of life, long, quiet days, a loving family, nice neighbors, animal friends, the wealth of nature, and carefully cooked foods.” These things, Takahashi claims, make Japanese readers “feel happy and content” and remind the older generation of “the good old days.”

This international acclaim has not gone unremarked at home, where 1996 has turned into something of an annus mirabilis for Taylor. Last April, at the National Library in Dublin, Bandon, her Irish publisher, released all her books with new covers at a ceremony hosted by Jean Kennedy Smith, the United States ambassador to Ireland. Ironically, the organizers called the event a “launch” because, as the author modestly explains, her books, which originally appeared without much fanfare, had never had one. The following month, on May 16, the president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, invited Taylor and her family to Aras an Uachtarain (the Irish White House) to celebrate her literary achievements. Cheery and self-effacing as usual, the author summed up the visit, saying it had been “a lovely, fine day,” and that she and her family had very much enjoyed having tea with the president and seeing the garden.

To open any of Taylor’s books is to understand immediately what all the fuss is about. They invite the reader into a different time and, for Americans, a different place, but more importantly, they encourage him or her to adopt a different — and happier — point of view. To read To School Through the Fields is, as C. S. Lewis once said of reading The Faerie Queene, “to grow in mental health.” Taylor’s world is infused with grace. Every person — and even every animal — plays an essential role. She treats them all with respect, tempered with the wry humor that God’s creatures often merit and the kind forbearance that they so often require. Her reminiscences, rich in memories of faith, family, and friends, are also full of the beauty of misty sunrises, the wonder of new life born on the farm, the spine-chilling delight of dips in the Darigle river, and humorous accounts of visits with eccentric neighbors. Taylor also describes her own rambles in the countryside, daydreaming in trees, and reading in the barn — from books hidden in the rafters — all pastimes that provided welcome relief from the instructions of her four older sisters who were all intent on giving her orders. Spirited sisterly disagreements, gabfests late into the night, musical evenings, poetry recitations, and set dancing in the kitchen further enlivened the family’s weekly routine.

Spartan Conditions

Although the community she depicts is characterized by deep faith, loving families, heart-warming neighborliness, close bonds with animals, and a deep harmony with nature, the life Alice Taylor describes is far from Edenic. She vividly portrays the hardships her family experienced and the heartaches they endured — including the tragic, sudden death of her younger brother, Connie, when he was only five years old. Life in Newmarket and its environs — although idyllic in some respects — with virtually no crowds, crime, or urban pathologies — was distinctly short on modern conveniences and comfort. Lisnasheoga, the ivy-clad farmhouse where Taylor and her six siblings grew up, had no central heating, running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, or telephone. Cooking was done over an open hearth fire, clothes — which Taylor’s mother made — were washed by hand, and the family ate what they raised on the farm. Money was in short supply. A gramophone and radio were prized possessions, and a six-penny slab of toffee, which the author and her sister, “Phil,” combined their savings to buy, was such a luxury that Taylor recalls it with relish half a century later.

By modern standards, life on the farm was onerous. Every day the family arose at dawn to feed chickens, geese, turkeys, and pigs; milk cows; collect hens’ eggs; and catch horses reluctant to be harnessed to take milk to the creamery. Most of the sowing and reaping, which were done by hand or with the aid of the family’s beloved horse, Paddy, was back-breaking work. Tractors were mechanical wonders that had not yet made their debut in Newmarket and motorcars were luxuries that belonged to another world.

Although the local school commemorated in the title of Taylor’s best-selling book provided a respite from farm work, conditions there were spartan as well. The author and her siblings had to walk three miles “through the fields” — each way — to reach their two-room, unheated schoolhouse. An “old stone building with tall rattling windows and black cobweb-draped rafters,” the school “groaned and creaked” when the wind blew, and the floor, Taylor recalls, “had large gaping holes through which an occasional rat peeped up to join the educational circle.” Bathroom facilities consisted of a tin-roofed outhouse, featuring a bench with a circle cut in it to accommodate “bottoms of all sizes.” “Learning was not optional,” and encouragement was meted out via “a sharp slap across the fingers with a hazel rod,” which, the author observes, “sharpened our powers of perception.”

A Generous Eye

As this and other passages indicate, one of the great charms of Taylor’s writing is the charity, humor, and, ultimately, wisdom with which she treats the subjects she discusses. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in her descriptions of the eccentric neighbors and recalcitrant farm animals who were the companions of her youth. Although many in the community found it hard to tolerate their neighbor Nell, young Taylor considered her a kindred spirit. Despite the former’s idiosyncrasies, stinginess, and slovenliness, Taylor sees the humor in Nell’s keeping her false teeth in her pocket so that they won’t wear out, and enjoys thinking of Nell’s hair — unwashed and stiff with soot — as an updated version of Cleopatra’s highly stylized wig. It is typical of the author’s goodwill as a child that she cheerfully climbed up on her neighbor’s treacherous thatch roof to try to clear the chimney, while the ungrateful Nell reviled her from below, shouting “Child, I’m crucified from you!” Likewise, as an adult, Taylor excuses the “furry and soot-laden” spiders that hung from Nell’s rafters, explaining, “She had great respect for cobwebs.”

Of “Old George,” who loved taking his neighbors to court — dressed in his dark suit and bowler — Taylor writes, “He was not greatly liked, but he was part of the place and we accepted him for what he was, an odd old codger.” But then, as if she feels she may not have given him his due, she tries to imagine the secret romance that court appearances may have held for George: “Maybe at heart,” she speculates, “he was an actor who loved a dramatic performance.” Nor does she criticize another neighbor, Paul, for his long white hair, scraggly beard, and habit of walking around clad only in white longjohns. She merely comments on his “biblical appearance.” Similarly, Taylor treats Bessie-Babe — who rejoiced in funerals and was stingy to the point of risibility — with great gentleness. “No one,” observes the author, “loved hardship like Bessie-Babe. . . . She was an enthusiastic and appreciative attender at every funeral.” Of the latter’s miserliness, the author writes, if “Ned [the shopkeeper] wanted to recommend something as representing great value he would say, ‘Bessie-Babe bought this.’“

The narrative light by which Taylor illuminates the neighbors of her youth is much like that cast by the oil lamps and candles of which she writes so movingly: “Candle-light was kind . . . to aging faces, cobwebs and bad housekeeping, its soft, flickering glow casting gentle shadows over many a blemish, human and otherwise.”

She displays equal generosity in her descriptions of the animals she knew as a child. She not only excuses their faults, but also empathizes with their feelings and attempts imaginatively to enter their world. Describing the delight of the geese and ducks when they returned to the farmyard after the threshing, she writes:

When the geese and ducks arrived back for the night from the fields, there were shrieks of joy, for the haggard [yard] . . . was a haven of rare delight for them. They screeched and . . . quacked and . . . tore into the chaff with all the sounds of ecstasy. They ate it, they burrowed in it, and they rolled over in it: such was their harvest thanksgiving.

She also puts the best construction possible on ill-tempered and badly behaved animals, treating even the least appealing creatures with an almost Franciscan tenderness. Of the family’s jennet — an odd cross between a horse and a donkey — who had a contortionist’s ability to kick people from unusual angles, she remarks, that he had the soul of a dancer. Similarly, she exonerates the mother pig of maternal indifference, explaining that having “twenty babies at one go” was “enough to stretch even the strongest maternal instincts.”

With a painter’s eye and poet’s ear, she also delights in recreating the sights and sounds of farm life — seeing “a symphony of color and sound” where others might discern only confusion and cacophony. Using the variegated hues of barnyard fowls as her palette, she creates a colorful tableau — made up of the “Rhode Island Reds, the black Minorcan with the golden beak, the white Leghorn and the frilly Sussex with her two white aprons giving her the appearance of a head nurse.”

God’s World

For Taylor, the natural world, which is a source of both sensual and spiritual joy, is “charged with the grandeur of God.” For her, love of the natural world, as she suggests in The Winding Road to God, her short commentary on the new Catechism, is one of the principal ways that God draws man to himself. The other, as she points out, is through love for one’s fellow man. Growing up, Taylor gained an intuitive understanding of both paths by observing her father, “a volatile man” who “found his God out in the fields in the wonders of nature,” and by basking in the love of her mother, who treated even her most irritating acquaintances with exceptional kindness.

Indeed, the unvarnished goodness of the world Taylor depicts and the obvious virtue of many of its inhabitants is one of the most appealing aspects of her books. Hers is a world in which virtually everybody takes God’s existence for granted, accepts faith as a given, and considers kindness to one’s fellow man a natural human response. In fact, when one of Taylor’s older sisters brought home an English beau who was an atheist, Taylor “was fascinated by him” because “Anybody who did not believe in God was a great novelty.”

Hers was also a profoundly Catholic world, where almost everyone attended Sunday Mass, went to hear the missioners preach, and shared in the excitement of hosting “the Stations,” when once every six years The Village priest came to say Mass in each home. This, Taylor vividly recalls, was a major event and an honor that her mother, “a deeply religious woman, . . . appreciated to the full.” The deep faith of Taylor’s parents — especially that of her mother — created a spiritual climate in which God seemed omnipresent. In fact, in Taylor’s earliest years, Jesus, or at least a statue of him, was her constant companion. Since dolls were scarce, statues of Saint Theresa and Baby Jesus took their place, keeping her and her younger brother company during the day and accompanying them to bed at night. In the parlor and in the kitchen, two different pictures of the Sacred Heart watched over the family — with the one in the kitchen strategically positioned with unobstructed view so as to discourage would-be malefactors.

Devotion to the Blessed Mother also flourished in Taylor’s home. Every night the whole family knelt to say the rosary, and when the author’s “turn came to give out the decade,” she “used the cows in the field to count” her ten Hail Marys.

She also appreciated the dramatic performances given by the missioners, “tall, graceful men in long, sweeping black gowns,” men “larger than life” with giant wooden rosary beads. Although she acknowledges that “Different orders had different levels of ferocity,” she confides that she and her contemporaries “preferred the fire and brimstone brigade,” particularly enjoying priests who “thumped the altar” and “strode back and forth shouting.”

Today, the faith of Taylor’s childhood continues to be a comfort and a mainstay. A devout Catholic who goes to daily Mass, she serves as a eucharistic minister and belongs to a weekly prayer group. But she is no boring goody-goody. She approvingly quotes her Aunt Mary’s advice that one should do battle with old age armed with a bottle of holy water and another of whiskey. When going into the hospital to deliver her children — or embarking on a grueling three-day pilgrimage to Lough Derg — she paints her toenails “a bright, dazzling scarlet” to help her face the ordeal. Hers is a religion of humor, whimsy, and drama that is up to any challenge. But it is also a legacy passed on to her by many faith-filled generations — a legacy that she clearly wants to share. In this respect, Taylor seems to be like her own mother, who, she says, “lit a candle in all our hearts.” The success of Alice Taylor’s books shows that — despite the advent of electrification — such candlelight has never been more necessary or more attractive.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Daly, Carson. “Ireland’s Secret.” Crisis 14 no. 8 (September 1996).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

Carson Daly writes from New York.

Copyright © 1996 Crisis


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